VAIL — Laurie Mullen spends a lot of weekends in Denver. That means she’s usually headed the opposite way of most weekend traffic. What she sees in the opposite lanes — countless cars either creeping or stopped entirely — troubles her.
Mullen and her husband, Tom, own West Vail Liquor. Laurie Mullen said as a Vail resident and business owner, she worries that Sunday afternoon gridlock might already be affecting people who travel and will have a bigger effect in coming years.
Mullen was part of a full room attending the recent Vail Valley Business Forum, an annual event sponsored by the Vail Valley Partnership, the regional chamber of commerce. One of the speakers this year was Margaret Bowes of the I-70 Coalition, a nonprofit group that works with state agencies and local governments to try to find ways to ease weekend congestion on the highway.
CHECK YOUR PEAK TIME
Traffic flows at the Eisenhower Johnson Memorial Tunnels have been relatively stable for the better part of a decade. Traffic in July, the busiest month at the tunnels, has varied between an average of about 35,000 and 39,000 vehicles per day. What’s changed, Bowes said, is so many people hitting the highways at roughly the same time on Sunday afternoons.
In an effort to try to change driver behavior, the Coalition has worked with the Colorado Department of Transportation on a program called Change Your Peak Time. The program combines traffic updates along with business deals posted on the Coalition’s website. The website is free for businesses to use, and Bowes said businesses post, edit and change their deals as they see fit.
Bowes said the program has made some, but not much, progress. Still, she said, the effort is worth pursuing.
People with higher household income — that would be many mountain resort guests — tend to be willing to either pay or adjust their plans in order to avoid traffic congestion, Bowes said.
And that congestion carries a high price. A 2005 study determined that traffic delays on I-70 cost $839 million per year, with a possible $25 million loss in business revenue for towns along the highway corridor.
That makes easing congestion an economic issue. It’s something Holli Snyder, of NRC Broadcasting, said she’s hearing from clients.
“They’re telling me for the first time that they’ve seen a loss of business in June,” Snyder said.
But there isn’t one solution to congestion problems. More lanes would be very expensive and time consuming. Adding more lanes would also be highly controversial, especially in Clear Creek County, which is, in essence, the bottom of the eastbound funnel on Sundays.
A big-idea solution is something called an Advanced Guideway System, a kind of high-tech rail line between Denver and Eagle County. A Colorado Department of Transportation study determined such a system is technically feasible. It would also cost an estimated $8 billion or more. That kind of money makes the system virtually impossible to build in the foreseeable future.
With that in mind, state officials are tackling smaller improvements, from widening the Twin Tunnels just east of Idaho Springs to expanding the shoulder on eastbound I-70 through much of Clear Creek County. The new lane would be tolled and used only during peak periods.
KEEP TRUCKS OFF THE ROAD
Bowes said the state is also working with the Colorado Motor Carriers Association on ways to help keep tractor-trailers off I-70 during peak times. That’s already happening, Bowes said, adding that much of the current weekend truck traffic is made up of delivery trucks from Denver.
Town of Vail officials have recently raised the idea of how to get more trucks off the roads on weekends, something Mullen said she favors.
One audience member asked Bowes about toughening up the state’s chain law for trucks, as well as reviving the idea of checking passenger cars for adequate tires during storms.
Bowes said truckers are already mostly in compliance with the requirement to carry chains during the winter, but added that the Colorado Legislature will probably take up the idea of toughening up passenger-car requirements in its 2015 session.
That bill is a likely reaction to transportation officials’ study of a perfect storm type of traffic jam at the end of January that pushed Vail-to-Denver travel times to eight hours or more. The study found that most vehicles that spun out that day were from Colorado, and most of those had inadequate tires.
State Representative Diane Mitsch Bush, who represents Routt and Eagle counties, told the audience that any proposed bill will be controversial.
Whatever short-term and long-term solutions are found for the highway, Bonnie Peterson said answers are essential. Peterson is the executive director of Club 20, a Western Slope lobbying organization.
“Without I-70, the state is crippled,” Peterson said. “It’s imperative to look at every possible solution.”
Vail Daily Business Editor Scott Miller can be reached at 970-748-2930, firstname.lastname@example.org and @scottnmiller.